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Entrepreneurial Community of the Year: MIRARCO Mining Innovation

“Our mission is to develop the people and the tools to design the underground mines and facilities of the future,” says Hall.

As one of the guiding lights at the heart of Sudbury’s research community, the Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO) has brought a strong entrepreneurial flair to intensive scientific pursuits for more than a decade.

Although its engineers, biologists and computer scientists are often neck-deep in data, their results represent important, practical solutions for the industry, something that has stood truer than ever through 2008.

In what has been a landmark year, MIRARCO released its first
commercial software program, the Schedule Optimization Tool, which is now due to be used by mining companies around the world.

Among countless other victories, staff has also successfully grown biofuel crops on mine tailings in Northern Ontario, and sold a virtual reality system to the Xuzhou Mining Group, one of China’s largest mining companies.

All this was accomplished amidst nearly $6 million worth of research projects, not to mention the third year of a five-year, $24-million Productivity Enhancement and Risk Management in Underground Construction and Mining (PERM) study.

This unwavering dedication to ingenuity and research excellence has brought MIRARCO the attention of the global mining industry, from Australia to Alberta and all points in between. It’s also earned the company some acclaim a little closer to home, including the title of the 2009 Northern Ontario Business Awards’ Entrepreneurial Community of the Year.

“We’re here in a very innovative, mining-focused part of the world, and we have to try to capture innovation wherever we can and add to it through research,” says Dr. Stephen Hall, president and CEO.

“So we engage with larger and small mining companies, service providers and consultants, and we benefit not just from their support but also the ideas and wealth of experience they bring. We’re just a small hub in a huge network that we try and develop.”

Fully owned by Laurentian University, MIRARCO was launched in 1998 after a handful of professors and researchers argued that the scope of work being done through the school’s Geomechanics Research Centre needed to expand. With funding in hand and Peter Kaiser at the helm, MIRARCO began to take shape.

Much has changed since those early days, including Kaiser’s move down the hall at Laurentian’s Willet Green Miller Centre to become executive director of the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation.

Though initially formed to pursue mining and environmental research and services, MIRARCO has spent much of the last decade fostering special areas of research expertise in response to the needs of industry.

The organization now has 50 staff across three central themes of expertise, including geohazard assessment and risk mitigation, visualization and software development, as well as environment and sustainability.

Further broadening its reach, MIRARCO is now looking at a partnership that will bring them into the eastern United States’ coal industry for the first time. The move creates not only the opportunity for new clients, but also to apply regional practices to problems in the base metal mining industry.

“Our mission is to develop the people and the tools to design the underground mines and facilities of the future,” says Hall.

This approach has worked in the past, as much of the company’s pioneering work in virtual reality began with the transfer of technology from the oil and gas industries into mining camps the world over.

This ambition and accomplishment have served MIRARCO well, and the numbers speak for themselves: throughout its 11-year lifetime, the corporation has created 300 job-years, worth more than $15 million in community spin-offs. It’s also produced $5 million in cost savings, investment and revenue generation for the province’s private sector.

This has led to the training of 150 students and researchers, providing ample educational opportunities for many masters and doctoral students.

As such, MIRARCO has carved out a pathway for skilled and passionate people from many walks of life to enter into the mining industry, even for students from non-mining backgrounds such as chemistry and mathematics.

The obvious benefits of this work has caught the attention of various levels of government, as well as the collaboration and investment of countless private sector partners. From local firms such as Vale Inco and Xstrata to the likes of Rio Tinto and Barrick Gold, mining firms from around the globe have supported MIRARCO’s research efforts from the outset.

It now sees broad international collaboration, with partnerships in more than 20 countries, ranging from Korea to Tanzania to Switzerland.